A Knowing Sense of Wonder
Painter William Irvine explores the transience of our lives passing through the monumentality of nature.
- By: Kim Ridley
- Photography by: Benjamin Magro
Painting Courtesy Leighton Gallery/Ken Woisard Photography
William Irvine needs lots of privacy when he paints. No one — not even his wife, Margery — is allowed to see his paintings until he’s finished. My timing, then, is lucky. Irvine has just completed a winter’s worth of work, which he is getting ready to send to several galleries. He doesn’t mind giving a visitor a preview.
Irvine flips through a stack of new oil paintings in the Blue Hill studio where he has worked for more than forty years. He props a few of his favorite pieces on a paint-splattered easel. One doesn’t so much look at Irvine’s paintings as tumble headlong into them.
“Here’s one I like a lot,” Irvine says in his warm Scottish burr as he shows me a painting of deer hunters stalking across a blueberry barren on a dark autumn afternoon. He has evoked the barren with bold swaths of red and black framed by yellow-orange fields. A few deft flicks of his palette knife suggest the tiny figures of the hunters toting rifles as they climb the hilly barren. “The clouds almost look like powder burns and the sun is like a bullet hole,” Irvine says.
The painting is a sharp departure from much of Irvine’s work, which often tends toward the whimsical. This piece emanates a raw, visceral quality and an almost palpable tension between the hunters and their hidden quarry. It provokes a question. Who will prevail: humans or nature?
“The hunters with their guns do not overwhelm the majesty or the beauty of the landscape,” says Irvine, a compact bear of a man with sky blue eyes and a kind and weathered face. “Nature survives and is still stunning to see.”
“What about the deer?” I ask.
“I’m not going to let the hunters have it,” he replies, laughing.
Maybe the piece isn’t so much of a departure after all. Irvine’s oil paintings are at once playful and primal, lush and spare. Using dynamic juxtapositions of densely layered color and flattened, abstracted shapes, he conjures entire worlds. Irvine combines a handful of elements — whether it’s hunters, hills, and clouds or an island, a sailor, and a boat — to create compelling narratives that explore universal themes.
“All artists are born with a small set of poems,” Irvine says. “And it is the exploration of that mythology that defines you as an artist. You’re confined by your personality and your soul within a small area, which you have to mine and clear and try to define.”
Irvine’s own set of poems springs from the sea. He grew up in Troon, a resort and former shipbuilding town on the southwest coast of Scotland, and has lived at the edge of the Atlantic for most of his seventy-eight years. The wonder he felt as a boy literally drove him to paint. It still does. Irvine’s is not a naïve sense of wonder, but a knowing one.
“My nerves were attuned to everything that was going on,” says Irvine, who vividly recalls the awe he felt gazing at the ocean and the overwhelmingly alive and tactile quality of the world around him. “More than anything, I needed to find some way to express the way I felt.” He started painting in his early teens with Bill Crozier, who became a lifelong friend and celebrated artist. Both attended the Glasgow School of Art, where Irvine earned a degree in painting and drawing in 1956.
Irvine painted and taught in London for the next ten years, where he met his first wife, an American student named Stephanie Schram. London galleries started showing his work in the early 1960s. He and Schram moved to the U.S. a few years later to be closer to her parents and they settled in Blue Hill in 1969. After Stephanie died of breast cancer twenty years later, Irvine briefly considered returning to Scotland. In the end, however, he decided to stay in Maine, where he was showing his work at the Leighton Gallery in Blue Hill and where he met Margery, a writer and professor at the University of Maine at Orono, whom he married in 1995.
When Irvine first moved to Maine, he visited Addison to check out the summer stomping grounds of painter John Marin, whose watercolor seascapes he particularly admired. The Down East coast and the people who lived here soon became the subjects of Irvine’s paintings and have captivated him ever since.
“I just loved the poetic beauty of those simple, white houses near the shore and people living their everyday lives,” Irvine says. “I felt an almost holy sense of wonder, and it was out of that sensation that I did a lot of paintings for many years.”
In these tranquil scenes of people peering from their doorways or puttering in their yards or lounging on the porch, the colors are muted and the paint thinly applied with a brush. The figures are small and doll-like. The days are typically sunny and the sea is calm.
“When I painted in the early days, I had a much more placid mood in the sense that the world seemed very beautiful and calm and that was reflected in my work,” Irvine says. “But as I get older, I realize how transitory our lives are and how fleeting our passage is through the permanence of nature.”
Wonder still compels Irvine to paint every day. He develops ideas from sketches and works feverishly when he’s in the middle of a series or getting ready for a show. He has developed an unusual technique to achieve his vibrant and rough-edged fields of color. Rather than brushes, he paints with paper towels, which allows him to build up many layers of paint without smearing the colors beneath or needing to wait for the paint to dry. If, at the end, a painting feels precious, Irvine takes drastic measures.
“I will destroy a painting that looks too good,” Irvine says. “I’ll alter it drastically, moving the colors and shapes around not intellectually, but emotionally. If I try to correct it by knowledge, it generally becomes very dry and empty. If it’s all thought and no feeling, it’s a bad painting.”
During Maine’s long, dark winters, Irvine experiments with new ideas. In 2008, he decided to paint still lifes, which he’d never done. The result is a series of paintings that cheerfully bend the conventions of genre and pull the viewer ever more deeply into Irvine’s world.
The tables in these paintings feel like altars or stages that are surrealistically tipped toward the viewer, which heightens the drama. Objects strange and familiar turn up on Irvine’s tables, from sea creatures to ocean liners to famous paintings. He usually locates the tables outdoors with the sky and the sea for a backdrop. They are, in a sense, still lifes within landscapes.
In one painting, the Titanic floats on a table along with a tarot card depicting the hangman. “It is a rather dark, threatening painting,” Irvine acknowledges. In another, he places a famous still life by the Italian painter Morandi on a table outdoors by the sea. “All of Morandi’s still lifes seemed imprisoned in that little room of his, so I thought I’d free it and let it breathe for the first time.” In another piece, completed before the presidential election, Irvine painted a blue lobster on his table and a crumpled page of the Bangor Daily News with the just-legible headline “Obama wins.”
Irvine won’t say much more about the paintings, as he’s not about to divulge the entire story. His open-ended narratives invite viewers to explore his world and experience it for themselves.
Once you’ve entered Irvine’s world, you’ll want to stay awhile, says Wally Mason, who curated a show of Irvine’s work at the University of Maine Museum of Art in 2000. Mason, who sees influences in Irvine’s paintings ranging from the Romantic nineteenth-century landscapes of John Constable and Caspar David Friedrich to the bold abstractions of twentieth-century painters like Howard Hodgkin and Sean Scully, calls Irvine’s work “uncompromising.”
“Bill’s work straddles abstraction and depiction in a thoughtful and profound way,” says Mason, now director of the Haggerty Museum of Art in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “They seem easy and quick to grasp on the surface, but they’re really slow, and you have to stay with them. You have to look at them over and over to experience them fully.”
The last painting Irvine props up on his easel depicts a sailor in a striped shirt lounging on an island with his hands behind his head. A sailboat cruises along the horizon. The sea is a deep, September blue. Seagulls soar past towering, gray-bellied clouds. It is part of a new series Irvine calls his “sleeping sailors.”
In this series, Irvine’s work seems to be coming full circle. Tranquility and tension exist side-by-side. New questions arise: Are those massive clouds coming or going? Did the boat abandon the sailor while he was sleeping or did he jump ship? Is he being left behind or has he arrived, at last?
“It’s a new development,” is all Irvine will say. “Perhaps my imagination is sorting things out.” Irvine continues to mine his set of poems to push the boundaries of expression. So, what hasn’t changed? “Me, I guess,” Irvine says, laughing. “I still get the same sense of excitement from painting as I did when I was young. I’m exploring the same mythology. So whatever happens in life, I have that permanence, and I think that is what has held my sanity all through the years.”
- By: Kim Ridley
- Photography by: Benjamin Magro